This is the first in a series of interviews with the heads of trade associations responsible for advancing the cause of members serving the interests of material handling professionals. This month we spotlight Material Handling Industry of America and
MHM: Material handling’s image is evolving from mechanical devices in buildings to a more strategic role in logistics processes and functions. Even though consumers may not have a solid concept of material handling, it touches everybody’s life. It’s part of the infrastructure supporting every business operation. How is the global economy shaping the future state of material handling and MHIA?
Nofsinger: There’s been a fair amount of consolidation in the industry as well as globalization of manufacturers and end users. With outsourcing, the rules have changed dramatically. As an association, one of our challenges is that we specialize. A big piece of this is that our programming as an industry has to be constantly renewed to be relevant to this global consolidated corporate structure. The challenge on this industry is to uniquely apply proven technology. We must be sure as an association that we’re inviting everybody we possibly can to the table regardless of where they’re domiciled, as long as they’re doing material handling logistics in this country.
MHM: What are the stakes involved for companies investing in material handling technology these days?
Nofsinger: The major investments companies are making in the solutions of this industry are fairly high risk for them. They can’t afford to make huge mistakes. At minimum there isn’t enough time to recover and at maximum it will result in a debt load that’s unmanageable. A big piece of what we’re trying to do is provide more opportunities for people to understand the proper application and to give them chances to shorten the time to solution cycle. That’s why we continue to view the industrial exhibition as one of the few high-quality opportunities for customers and vendors to shake hands and look each other in the eye. It’s a way to talk to people who have done this before and get a level of confidence that these solutions are affordable and won’t be a career-ending decision for them.
MHM: MHIA by its very name serves the American market. Do you see the day when your charter will expand to a more global perspective?
Nofsinger: One of our groups will be meeting with a sister group from Europe to exchange test type data that each region has been collecting. Some of this effort is designed to continue a process toward the evolution of a consensus between Europe and America on racking design. Now that the European community encompasses countries on the Mediterranean and soon some central and eastern European countries, the community in Brussels is putting safety directives in place to say you need more definitive design guides for earthquake and seismic behavior. We’ve lived that for many years in this part of the world, so our standards are a little further developed. On the other hand, engineers sometimes have different approaches to the design of things. We’re collaborating to do the best we can between the regions to make these products as safe as they ought to be. The outcome is likely to be a set of global standards.
MHM: Does that mean we’ll eventually have an international material handling organization?
Nofsinger: Because we have formal liaison relationships today with the European and Japanese associations, we exchange visits, attend each other’s meetings and collaborate on technical issues. I can see a federation but I don’t know if I can see anything in the next 10 years that would be a single association. That’s because there are still national associations in these countries that are fairly provincial, just as some of our associations can be.
MHM: What’s happening at the product group level of MHIA?
Nofsinger: Our groups can be divided into several types. A handful of them have a primary interest in standards and technical activity. Their products have to be permitted in order for them to be built, and local authorities may have some say in what gets done. For them it’s commercially critical that they be involved at the inner circles of the development of these consensus approaches and in our case through ANSI [the American National Standards Institute] because it becomes the only way you can practically apply products in this part of the world.
When you get into systems activities, involving collections of things, those groups realize the best thing they can do is build awareness through case studies or regional seminars. They want to take some of the risk out of play.
Statistical information is always important, and there’s a lot of user safety activity. OSHA has struggled with the science behind its lifting guidelines, but everyone accepts that the underlying reason for going there is valid, to come up with ways to mitigate injuries to workers. An important objective is to collaborate with OSHA on behalf of large groups of the membership to better position our products.
MHM: MHIA has also been more closely involved with transportation issues affecting the supply chain.
Nofsinger: In the late ’80s we started to step away from the traditional way of looking at material handling and became a little more inclusive of technologies we didn’t traditionally think of, including information technologies that allow concurrence. But even in that era, our work was pretty much inside of buildings. Six years ago we did a rendering for the cover of our annual report. The roof was lifted off a building and we see conveying, racks and trucks, but as you look outside the building there are trucks backing up to the building and ships on the sea and airplanes flying. The handoffs to these modes are not clear-cut. The issues are much more gray. In the next report we showed our products bridging the world as part of its infrastructure of flow.
MHM: That is really making itself known as the military gets more visibility in the media.
Nofsinger: The traditional way was you threw a bunch of troops on a ship and you took them across to a battle zone. Sometime between when they left and when they arrived, battleground conditions changed. Ideally what they would like to be able to do would be to kit every soldier for the exact mission he’ll face. But even today it isn’t that simple. The way one officer explained it to me, if you’re on one of these ships and you get there and there’s no one on the beach but friendlies, then you should probably leave through the door on the ship that’s near the flower shop and give them all flowers. If they’re not friendlies, you want to leave via the door that’s near the hand grenade department because you might need those. That’s not the most efficient way to enter these conditions. We need systems that are dynamic and changing. We’re in a unique position at this moment in time where material handling is more widely respected at the most senior levels of industry. We have a set of conditions in logistics and flow that demand we apply the products of this industry.
MHM: Is that proving itself in terms of membership activity?
Nofsinger: We have more companies today involved at the work group or product section level than we did in 2000. There’s been a lot of gray matter applied in the last couple years to ready the industry for the next chapter. Competitive pressures will mount and expectations will be greater than ever but I don’t think the industry has ever been better prepared. MHM